I love the scent of agenda-driven reporters in the morning. Note the photo that accompanies the story, and the headline:
Emphasis Shifts for New Breed of Evangelicals
The evangelical Christian movement, which has been pivotal in reshaping the country’s political landscape since the 1980s, has shifted in potentially momentous ways in recent years, broadening its agenda and exposing new fissures.
The death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell last week highlighted the fact that many of the movement’s fiery old guard who helped lead conservative Christians into the embrace of the Republican Party are aging and slowly receding from the scene. In their stead, a new generation of leaders who have mostly avoided the openly partisan and confrontational approach of their forebears have become increasingly influential.
Typified by megachurch pastors like the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and the Rev. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, the new breed of evangelical leaders — often to the dismay of those who came before them — are more likely to speak out about more liberal causes like AIDS, Darfur, poverty and global warming than controversial social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.
Warren and Hybels are certainly different from past evangelical leaders, but past evangelical leaders also spoke out about the issues of their time–AIDS, Darfur and global warming are issues of our time. It would be odd if evangelical leaders of this moment didn’t speak about those issues. Warren is unfortunately leading a cadre of evangelical leaders down a global warming rabbit trail, but it isn’t strange that that’s an issue he’d have an opinion on.
One thing that does separate Warren and Hybels from past evangelical leaders, but that the Times doesn’t get into, is their effort to fundamentally change Christianity and their intolerance for Christians who disagree with them. You won’t find the Times reporting on that, though, because it’s a conflict its reporters probably don’t understand. You’ll catch a glimpse of Warren’s thinking in this roundtable interview he gave before a group of journalists at a Pew Foundation forum two years ago:
JUAN WILLIAMS, NPR: Picking up on this business about the disagreements between the fundamentalists and the Pentecostals, I mean, this struck me as news because when journalists write about it, we go to people like Robertson and Falwell to represent the evangelicals. And that’s the way it comes across, so it strikes me that we’re ill informed or you’re wrong. (Chuckles.) And secondly, that you’re not using this God-given influence you spoke of, because your influence is not showing up in the American media in terms of supplanting people who you would tell us are bogus.
MR. WARREN: Well, I tell you, that’s the reason I accepted this meeting, because I’m just tired of having other people represent me and represent the hundreds of thousands of churches where the pastors I’ve trained would nowhere, no way, relate to some of the supposed spokesmen of a previous generation.
Now the word “fundamentalist” actually comes from a document in the 1920s called the Five Fundamentals of the Faith. And it is a very legalistic, narrow view of Christianity, and when I say there are very few fundamentalists, I mean in the sense that they are all actually called fundamentalist churches, and those would be quite small. There are no large ones. (my emphasis)
The Five Fundamentals of which Warren speaks are:
1. The inerrancy of the autographs (or original writings) of scripture.
2. The virgin birth and deity of Christ.
3. The substitutionary view of the atonement.
4. The bodily resurrection of Christ.
5. The imminent return of Christ.
A savvy reporter at that Pew forum would have asked Warren, “Which of those five fundamentals represent a ‘very legalistic, narrow’ view of Christianity?” No one thought to ask him that, and the NYT reporters don’t report on his thinking in their piece either. It’s a conflict driven by Warren that entirely escapes the Times’ anthropological eye.
The answer, by the way, is none of the fundamentals represent a “narrow, legalistic” view of Christianity. They’re all essential beliefs. Believing in the fundamentals doesn’t make you a fundamentalist. It just makes you a Christian. The fundamentals were put together to unify Christians of all stripes on the basics that unite us. They’re not just fundamentalist in design or intent. So Warren either has his fundamentalism taxonomy wrong, or he has his theology wrong. A savvy reporter, given the opportunity, would ask him: “Which is it?”
Back to the Times article.
The evangelical movement, however, is clearly evolving. Members of the baby boomer generation are taking over the reins, said D. G. Hart, a historian of religion. The boomers, he said, are markedly different in style and temperament from their predecessors and much more animated by social justice and humanitarianism. Most of them are pastors, as opposed to the heads of advocacy groups, making them more reluctant to plunge into politics to avoid alienating diverse congregations.
“I just don’t see in the next generation of so-called evangelical leaders anyone as politically activist-minded” as Mr. Falwell, the Rev. Pat Robertson or James C. Dobson, he said.
The “he” is Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and he is both right and wrong. Warren is as politically active as any pastor before him, but his politics manifests itself in ways that don’t resemble the activism of Falwell or Pat Robertson. You won’t find Warren running for president, for instance. You will find him trying to run a country, though.
Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, is not known for hugging pastors. Catholic and Protestant clergy have been convicted in connection with the genocide in his country in 1994, and Kagame has repeatedly stated his disdain for religious organizations. Thus a buzz went up in Kigali’s Amahoro Stadium last month when Kagame allowed Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of the best-selling The Purpose-Driven Life, to throw an arm over his shoulders and “pray for the President.”
In fact, their bond now extends well beyond prayerful embrace. Kagame has committed his government to cooperation in a five-to-seven-year self-sufficiency project staffed by Rwandan volunteers but initiated, advised and at least partly funded by Warren’s network of “purpose-driven churches.” Warren talks of turning Rwanda into “the first purpose-driven nation.”
The political differences between Warren’s activities and those of Falwell and Robertson come down to style–Warren is less overtly and partisanly political–and emphasis–Warren is less likely to move on specific issues than he is likely to think holistically about a whole basket full of issues and act on them simultaneously. And he’s more likely to act behind the scenes than sling thunder from his pulpit or your TV.
Mr. Warren, 53, who wrote the spiritual best seller “The Purpose-Driven Life,” has dedicated much of the past few years to mobilizing evangelicals to eradicate AIDS in Africa. Even so, he remains theologically and socially quite conservative. He tempers the sharper edges of his beliefs with a laid-back style (his usual Sunday best is a Hawaiian shirt). Although he does not speak from the pulpit about politics, he sent a letter before the 2004 presidential election to pastors in a vast network who draw advice from him, urging them to weigh heavily “nonnegotiable” issues like abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage from a biblical perspective.
And some of these evangelical leaders are pushing more than a little mission creep on their churches and parachurch groups:
The Rev. Joel C. Hunter, 59, a Florida megachurch pastor who signed the climate change statement, stepped down last year as the president-elect of the Christian Coalition over what he said was resistance among members of the organization’s board to expanding its concerns beyond the usual social issues. He has been active in encouraging evangelicals to speak out on issues like global poverty, and signed on this month to an evangelical declaration on immigration reform that called for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He is critical of the tactics and rhetoric employed by the old religious right.
Put together with Warren’s global warming effort and his and Hybels’ and several other megachurch pastors’ overall approach, the emerging evangelical leadership is less doctrinaire in its thinking, pays less attention to traditional Christian teachings, is more politically correct, but is operating in ways that are likely to generate less political opposition outside the church (but more inside for a variety of reasons). The Times got that part right.
I’m probably bumping up against fair use, so I’ll leave you with this, in which you can sense the Times’ disappointment in the new species of evangelical leader:
A poll conducted this year by the Pew Research Center showed that white evangelical Protestants have similar concerns to other Americans, including the war in Iraq, education and the economy, but a far greater percentage continue to cite tackling the “moral breakdown” in society as a key priority. They remain solidly Republican.
“While I think a lot of their leaders have begun to talk about other things, like Darfur and the environment, this remains a pretty social conservative group in some respects,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “There doesn’t seem to me to be any sign of a sea change.”
And encourage you to read the rest. Obama makes a cameo. No Times article on politics would be complete without mentioning him.